That Dirty Little Coward That Shot Mr. Howard

“Now the people held their breath,
When they heard of Jesse’s death;
They wondered how he’d ever come to fall;
Robert Ford it was a fact,
He shot Jesse in the back,
While Jesse hung a picture on a wall.”

On April 3, 1882, Robert “Bob” Ford shot Jesse James in the back, thus ensuring both men would be immortalized in one of the great American folk songs. The song “Jesse James,” with the lyrics quoted above, referred to the outlaw Jesse Woodson James by his famous real name and by the alias he was using at the time of his death, Thomas Howard. The song has been covered by singers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Morrison.

Singer-songwriter Nick Cave performed a version of the song in the excellent 2007 movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, with Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. This scene from the movie shows how Ford laid poor Jesse in his grave. Note that these clips contain spoilers from the movie.

Here is Nick Cave’s appearance in the movie, singing “Jesse James” in a saloon to Robert Ford (Affleck).

As for the aftermath of Jesse’s death, Ford and his brother Charles Ford had been promised a large reward by Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, but they only received a small portion of what was promised. And they were surprised at the hostility they received for killing James.

Both brothers met tragic ends. In 1884, the terminally ill Charles killed himself. Robert Ford, like James, would later be assassinated. A little more than ten years after Jesse’s death, on June 8, 1892 Edward O’Kelley surprised Ford by calling his name in Ford’s Colorado tent saloon, shooting Ford dead as he turned. Robert Ford’s tragic end is captured in this beautiful ending sequence from The Assassination of Jesse James.

Robert Ford and Jesse James are forever linked, although Jesse’s family understandably did not appreciate the association. Ford’s tombstone reads, “The man who shot Jesse James.” By contrast, Jesse James’s tombstone would read: “Jesse W. James, Died April 3, 1882, Aged 34 years, 6 months, 28 days, Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”

Photo of Robert Ford via public domain.

What is your favorite story of an outlaw’s death? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    2 thoughts on “That Dirty Little Coward That Shot Mr. Howard”

      1. I agree that Casey Affleck really makes the movie. I like the Guy Clark song. Thanks for the comment.

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